Hyperrealist oil painter Greg Haynes showcases astounding technique, but limited meaning, in Maybaum Gallery’s “Mirror Effect”

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Maybaum Gallery & Greg Haynes/Courtesy

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Hyperrealism is an exhilarating and open-ended art movement. Its practitioners paint or sculpt the stuff of real life with photographic accuracy. But is it a quest for reality or, as the word “hyper” suggests, an attempt to surpass it?

This is one of the riddles that are at play in Greg Haynes’ solo exhibition currently on display at the Maybaum Gallery in downtown San Francisco. “Mirror Effect” features a collection of realist oil paintings, which are staggering in terms of technique and visual execution, but yearn for more dynamic visual situations. 

The gallery show is devoted to a single medium: glass. The oil paintings on display celebrate glass products in various shapes and sizes, from stout mason jars to slender bottles. These studies in glass look astoundingly real, but their overall effect on the viewer is more austere than inspiring.

The jars and bottles appear individually or in rows, always against a neutral background of soft pastel or unblemished white. This use of negative space produces a precarious effect: The glass is perfectly see-through but there is nothing to see behind it. The shadows cast by the vessels are never as powerful as the light that shines through them. It is a world without dirt, stains, liquids or grease. One can almost hear the dishwasher running in the background, the sponges and dishrags strewn just outside the frames of the paintings.

Ostensibly, these jars and bottles are meant to have character and personality, but their blinding perfection makes them feel untouched, unsentimental. If they have a story to tell, it is one of mass production, fresh off the assembly line. Even the more colorful images — such as “Glass from Above,” (a set of jars and beakers in varying shades of blue and green), or “Purple Buttons,” (a jar of buttons that delves into the psyche of the color purple) — are so painstakingly true to life that they lose the dynamic spontaneity of a household container in daily use.

Haynes is a gifted realist painter. Glass is a notoriously complex material to paint, and he produces uncannily translucent images time and again without fail. There is a great deal to be said about his use of light and his meticulous attention to interior spaces. He transforms the hollow body of a jar into a transparent theater of glass and light — a space of refractions and visual distortions that verge on the point of conception. There seems to be something taking shape in the belly of the vessel, a half-glimpsed specter spun together out of shadow and light. But, sadly, it is only a trick of the relentlessly neutral background, the glass and the human eye’s search for meaning.

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“Glass From Above” by Greg Haynes

“Mirror Effect” rests upon seductive combinations of glass, light and negative space — suggestive of a state in which everything is fluid and all views are unobstructed. But this produces an austerity that is not entirely soothing to the eye — a visual sanitorium that pricks at a human desire for dirt, for the dying of the light, for broken glass.

Imagine what Haynes, having cut his teeth on such idyllic subject matter, might do with something raw and imperfect. Imagine how the light might play on a bottle, not glistening and upright, but shattered, a heap of broken glass. Imagine smooth surfaces contrasted with sharp angles, the lip of the bottle disembodied, the specter of shadow and light free at last. 

Less dramatic possibilities of hyperrealist glassware emerge as well. A message in a bottle, a jar of dried fruit. The incorporation of water seems equally promising in the equation of light and glass.

This collection beautifully showcases Haynes’s skill set but cries out for more dynamic subject matter. Hyperrealism has the potential to transform even the most sedate still life into something uncanny, but it requires more than just technique alone. Haynes’s fascination with glass is deeply promising and deserves more attention than a mere trick of the light.

Blue Fay covers visual art. Contact him at [email protected].